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11 June 2017updated 12 Jun 2017 1:24pm

Living history: the philosophy of the Japanese house

In a country where most homes are torn down after just 25 years, architecture is well placed to tell the national story.

By Yo Zushi

Some time in the mid-1920s, Jimmy Doo­little, a stocky Californian aviator, fell out of a window and broke both his ankles. He was in Santiago to perform a demonstration flight for US aircraft manufacturers, and at stake was a large commission from the Chilean government. So, despite the fresh casts on his feet, Doolittle took to the skies and dazzled spectators with rolls and upside-down manoeuvres, sealing the deal.

Doolittle, however, is better known today as the man who commanded the Tokyo raid of 18 April 1942 – the first air strike on the Japanese home islands following the attack on Pearl Harbor four months earlier. With that raid began a series of bombing campaigns that killed at least 300,000 civilians and destroyed the homes of four million Japanese. Tokyo was razed by napalm-fuelled firestorms; Hiroshima and Nagasaki were flattened by atomic bombs. The destruction in some areas was comprehensive. On 18 August 1945, a Jesuit clergyman called Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge walked through the ruins of Hiroshima and saw, as John Hersey wrote in the New Yorker a year after the detonation, a “reddish-brown scar”, four square miles in size, surrounded by “range on range of collapsed city blocks”.

Visit Hiroshima now and you will find a few reminders of that annihilation – the museum, the peace memorial dome, but little else besides. (I lived there as a child and learned of what had happened only long ­after moving to the UK.) The same is true of Tokyo, where the city centre gleams with almost desperately futuristic displays of the latest technology. Yet the newness of the buildings in Japan’s once ruined cities is a testament to that often forgotten history. Before resurrection must come death.

At the Barbican exhibition “The Japanese House”, the work of more than 40 architects demonstrates the many ­contradictory forms that the resurrection took. The buildings here – in models, photographs, installations – are metonymies of wider changes in society, from the push towards internationalism that followed the US occupation to attempts to define a modern sense of “Japaneseness”. In a country where most houses are erected and torn down after just 25 years, architecture is well placed to tell the national story of the past seven decades – a period in which the “go-go” economic boom gave way to a managed stagnation, and the old structures of family and work began to crumble.

One area long contested by the country’s architects is privacy, which, in effect, is an imported concept: there is no Japanese word that fully corresponds to the term’s English meaning. Where an Englishman’s home was often built to last centuries, Japanese houses were historically more ephemeral and permeable, constructed out of wood and divided by paper screens. After the Second World War, however, the demand for new housing led to the mass construction of prefabricated concrete homes, and the accelerating economic growth of the era drew more people to the cities than they were originally designed for.

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Innovators such as Takamasa Yoshizaka attempted to strike a balance between “individual freedom and collective benefit” and also worked to reinterpret concrete as a creative material. Yet that balance was too often thrown by the demands of urban life, and some sought hermetic refuge. Kazunari Sakamoto’s 1970 house in Minase was installed with a deliberately inconspicuous entrance and high windows above head height, as if in rejection of the bustle all around it. Meanwhile, Toyo Ito’s U-shaped 1976 commission for his widowed sister sought to be a protective sanctuary, its windowless exterior a shield from prying eyes. (But, to me, it evoked a prison.)

The centrepiece of the exhibition – a full-size, fully furnished re-creation of Ryue Nishizawa’s minimalist Moriyama House (2005) – makes the opposite case for immersion in city life. Designed for a Tokyo eccentric who rarely leaves his neighbourhood, the house is segmented into small units that can be endlessly reconfigured. Here, inside and outside are almost interchangeable: even the tunnel leading to the bathroom is transparent.

The experience of nosing through the facsimiled Moriyama House was vastly different from that of climbing into the show’s other full-size exhibit: a teahouse on stilts constructed for the Barbican by Terunobu Fujimori. Its charred-wood exterior and imperfect lines draw less on modern experimentation than on the traditional aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in transience and accidents of chance. Yet both the teahouse and the Moriyama complex felt distinctly Japanese. For a modern country that reveres the simplicity of the past – a nation collectivist by instinct, but which enthusiastically embraced Western-style individualism after the war – this sense of contradiction is perhaps only natural. 

Runs until 25 June. Details: barbican.org.uk

This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special